by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Decades before the Jets returned to Winnipeg, professional hockey was played in Manitoba, although only over a brief timeframe. From the very beginning of the league in 1907, teams strove to attract high-calibre professional players. In some instances, the teams raided each other’s rosters and Eastern Canadian leagues in a bid to field a winning product on the ice.
But there was a lot at stake — the champion of the Manitoba Professional Hockey League (MPHL) earned the right to challenge the holder of the Stanley Cup, although the cup was technically only open to amateur hockey teams. Yet by 1906, teams across Canada were filled with professional “ringers” that challenged for the cup.
In Manitoba, some players had been paid by teams to participate in games in what was ostensibly an amateur senior league as early as 1905. The presence of pros was officially acknowledged when the amateur league was finally confirmed as being a professional league, although some alleged amateurs were still playing in each team’s line-up. In truth, some of the best hockey players were paid under the table to preserve their amateur status.
Professional hockey was at first frowned up, but this changed as the sport gained momentum in Manitoba. The argument to preserve amateurism was that sports were not to be a job, but an enjoyable recreational pursuit. Actually, it was more a British concept based upon class distinctions — only the upper classes could afford to engage in leisurely activities — than the reality in Canada.
“However, keeping the classes separated was never something which players and followers of hockey in Manitoba placed high priority, and early in the twentieth century their lack of sympathy for class prejudice was one thing that helped break down opposition to pro hockey” (An Immense Hold in the Public Estimation: The First Quarter Century of Hockey in Manitoba, 1886-1911, by Morris Mott, Manitoba History, Spring/Summer, 2002).
Mott wrote that after 1904 most Manitobans concluded “that maintaining strict amateur rules was not only impossible but also malicious and ultimately ridiculous.”
Since hockey was highly popular with cash-paying rabid fans filling the stands, money was available for promoters to pay players.
With the advent of professionalism in Manitoba hockey, teams came and went over the course of the league’s brief existence with the 1907 season having four clubs competing. By the time that the league’s final season came to an end, it was confined to just two professional teams from Winnipeg.
In 1907, the league included the Brandon Wheat Kings, Kenora Thistles, Portage la Prairie Cities, and the Winnipeg Strathconas. In a weird quirk of hockey played at the time, it was also the year that the winner of the MPHL would also become the Stanley Cup champion, since the Kenora Thistles had won the Canadian title in January 1907. In a total goals series played against the Montreal Wanderers on January 17 and 21, Kenora won both games 4-2 and 8-6, respectively, at the Montreal Arena. To ensure victory, the Kenora side had borrowed future Hockey Hall of Famers Art Ross and “Bad” Joe Hall from Brandon, although only Ross played in the series with Hall listed as a spare.
With a population of just 4,000 people, Kenora became the smallest town to ever win the Stanley Cup.
The winner of the MPHL would then go on to play the Montreal Wanders, the champions of the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association (ECAHA). Under the rules of the ECAHA, participating teams could have both professional and amateur players on their rosters. The Montreal squad took all 10 games of the regular season schedule.
“The championship of the Manitoba Senior Hockey League (no mention was made of it being a professional league) will be settled this week,” announced the Brandon Daily Sun on March 11, 1907, “and the winner will have the honor of defending the Stanley Cup against the Montreal Wanderers.”
At the end of the league schedule, Portage was scheduled to take on the Thistles in Kenora in a two-game total goal series, while Brandon was to play the Strathconas in Winnipeg.
At the time, Brandon, Kenora and Portage were tied for top spot in the league, each team having lost just two games.
For their run at the title, Kenora imported forwards Alf Smith and Harry Westwick from the Ottawa Hockey Club of the ECAHA and Paddy Chambers, the point man from the Strathconas.
“Alf Smith is in the finest of shape,” reported the Sun on March 11, 1907, “having just gone through a trying season with Ottawa (finished second in the ECAHA), and is playing probably the strongest and cleanest hockey of his long career on the ice, and the same may be said of the ‘Rat.’”
Westwick was labelled the “Rat” by a journalist. He is most noted for his play with the Ottawa Hockey Club (Senators), nicknamed the “Silver Seven,” during his day, which won and defended the Stanley Cup from 1903 until 1906.
The Sun said the Kenora team attracted the two players from Ottawa by making “an alluring offer.”
Brandon took the first game in the series with the Strathconas by a 5-3 score, but faltered in the second game, allowing the teams to play to a 7-7 tie. Still, the Wheat Kings claimed the series by two goals.
The Manitoba Free Press described the March 14 game as “a surprise, as the Strathconas, with their team somewhat disorganized, were not looked upon as likely to run a dead heat with a team primed up for Stanley Cup battles.”
The final match between the Strathconas and the Wheat Kings was “roughing and hard in its checking,” according to the Free Press, “and more than once a stiff body jolt, or slash at the stick was not enough for the contestants, and there were sundry jabs in the ribs, and cracks on the cranium, which did not improve the tone of the game, and resulted in various delays to patch up an injured player.”
Hockey in the early days of its existence was far from a genteel pursuit. Deaths on the ice did occur and some rather serious injuries resulted from sticks aimed at body parts. In fact, it was stick work rather than body checks that took the greatest toll on players.
For example, in 1905, Allan Loney was charged with manslaughter in the on-ice clubbing death of Alcide Laurin. Loney claimed self-defence, and was found not guilty. In 1907, Ottawa Senators players Harry Smith, Alf Smith and Charles Spittal were charged with assault after beating Montreal Wanderers players, Hod Stuart, Ernie “Moose” Johnson and Cecil Blatchford with their sticks. In 1907, Ottawa Victorias player Charles Masson was charged with manslaughter after Cornwall player Owen McCourt died of a head wound sustained in a brawl. Masson was found not guilty on the grounds that there was no way to know which blow had killed McCourt.
The March 12 game between Kenora and Portage was called a “whitewash” by the Sun. “Portage la Prairie’s hopes of a Stanley Cup seven this winter ... were finally dashed for keeps tonight when the reorganized Thistles inflicted a severe drubbing on the Portage team in the final match of the Manitoba Hockey League season by the crushing score of seven goals to none.”
The newspaper said the Thistles outclassed their opponents in all phases of play on the ice. “The Thistles presented the best line-up that has ever worn the local uniform, and it would be hard to find seven such able exponents of the game anywhere.”
The reference to “seven” is the result of seven players being on the ice per side during a game, as opposed to the six-player squads of today’s game. The extra player of the era was called the rover, and as the name implied, didn’t have a specific position, such as the goaltender, three forwards (as now, then called centre and left- and right-wingers) or two defenders (then called point and cover), but roved the ice, going where needed.
Perhaps the most famous rover was Lester Patrick, who played 18 seasons as a professional. Kenora’s “Rat” Westwick was a rover, who was also inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
(Next week: part 2)